Homeless youths struggle to escape the ‘circle of survival’
With need identified, United Way looks for ways to help local homeless youth
GREENVILLE — In working to better understand the local homeless youth population, Audrey Fleming is no longer surprised by each example she comes across.
Over the past year, the homeless youth community navigator for Montcalm and Ionia Counties, whose position is funded through a partnership between United Way Montcalm-Ionia Counties (UWMIC), the Montcalm Area Intermediate School District and EightCAP, has connected with hundreds of area students who lack what most people take for granted — a home.
From a middle school student who sleeps on a cot in a kitchen, desiring only to have a quiet place to do their homework, to the elementary student who has moved to temporary housing five different times and wants nothing but their own bedroom, Fleming said the lack of stability in the lives of these students is striking.
“We are now finding out a lot of information about our kids,” Fleming said. “We have a lot of students and schools that are opening up and sharing their experiences with us, helping us to understand where we are missing the mark on serving our homeless kids.”
And on the far end of the spectrum, the examples of homeless youths become far more dire.
“In one situation we have a parent who overdosed and now the student is choosing between earning their high school diploma or going to work to take care of their siblings,” UWMIC Executive Director Terri Legg said. “These kids don’t have the ability to see outside of their little circle of survival, to see that there’s more out there.”
Both Fleming and Legg presented at the monthly meeting of the Coalition of Greater Greenville on Dec. 15, invited by Greenville Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Paul Sischo to speak on the serious topic.
“This is really heavy stuff, but I think the days of pretending these things aren’t happening need to be behind us,” he said. “Agencies like United Ways are working with our communities, working on these issues. They can’t do everything, but together, we all can do something. So I would just encourage people to maybe spark something, to see where maybe you can step in with an organization that is close to your heart. It takes a village. It takes a whole community, together, to solve these types of issues that are really important.”
Both Fleming and Legg said that since Fleming was hired about a year ago, area agencies now have a much clearer picture of the reality of homeless youth.
Utilizing funds from the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, Fleming has identified more than 300 area students between the two counties who are considered to be homeless.
“These are kids who are experiencing some form of homelessness, be it couch surfing, doubled up with another family, etc.,” she said. “This problem continues to grow. Unfortunately in our communities, we don’t have resources. There’s not a lot we can do to support our homeless students.”
While 300 may seem like a large number, Fleming said the actual figure is likely higher.
“What we’re finding is, it’s hard to identify them,” she said. “It’s difficult to have families come and tell schools that they are in a homeless situation. They may not even know they are in a homeless situation if they at least have a roof over them.”
Fleming added that most teenagers are afraid to admit and share the situation they are in.
“They fear that could lead to a call from Child Protective Services or an even worse situation at home,” she said. “There’s a lot of bias in communities against teenagers. They are a little rough around the edges finding themselves as adults, but there’s this interesting stigma that kids who run away from home are just running away because they are mad at mom and dad. What we are finding is some parents are abandoning their children. They are choosing substances, significant others and other reasons other than their kids.”
While Fleming said homelessness is more easily identifiable in urban settings, she said the issue is actually more critical in rural communities due to that lack of resources.
“Urban homelessness and rural homelessness are identical, but being in a city, they have more resources and support,” she said. “Our rural students really have the hardest time because there is nowhere for them to go. There are limited resources for them and a lot of barriers in place if you are a minor.”
Adding to the homeless youth problem, says Fleming, is the growing problem of addressing mental health issues.
In having surveyed 1,866 youths, while 61% of those surveyed said they were feeling “OK,” they added that they have been experiencing an increased sense of anxiety or depression, with only 18% indicating they were “fine.”
“I think that we as a whole, as a community, we are learning that mental health is a larger concern than we realized it to be,” she said. “I think younger generations are really opening up about mental health. Kids today went through a lot during COVID, and they are really understanding that they are on their own, that they are really anxious.”
As to why mental health has become a bigger issue in recent years, several members of the audience expressed that part of that may be because children are now more willing to come forward and express that they are having mental health issues than in previous years, due in part to the coronavirus pandemic.
“COVID has made it OK to talk about mental health. It’s become a little bit more OK to talk about mental health issues,” MAISD Director of Communications/Administrative Services Penny Dora said. “I think the situation that we all experienced during COVID opened up more opportunities for mental health awareness.
“There are also a lot more resources that the state and federal governments have provided to allow us to support mental health services,” she continued. “So we’ve been able to, through funding at the K-12 level, offer things to students, like our 31-N partnership with the Montcalm Care Network. That allows us to place 31-N counselors in every one of our seven local districts. They are dedicated to supporting mental health student needs.”
Additionally, Montcalm Community College graduate Allison Horner, who is currently studying at Ferris State University and interning as a high school recruiter at Greenville Tool and Die, said she felt her generation— Generation Z — has become more willing to speak out and address problems such as youth homelessness more directly.
“Generation Z, my generation coming up, is one of the first to hold adult parents accountable for trauma,” she said. “We’re kind of the first generation to put a stop to it.”
Lastly, Fleming said one issue that complicates youth homelessness in Montcalm and Ionia counties even further is a lack of proper sheltering for students who truly have nowhere else to turn.
“Schools like Greenville do transport kids to and from a shelter in Kent County frequently because there’s no youth shelter available for anyone under the age of 18 in Ionia or Montcalm counties,” she said. “Through McKinney-Vento, students that are undergoing homelessness have the absolute right to remain in their school of origin. It is up to the school to make sure they have the availability to go to and from school because that school has become their only place of stability. We want to keep our kids stable, but that requires transportation back and forth.”
Fleming added that making things more difficult is that while the MAISD serves as the fiscal agent for that funding, only about $70,000 is available annually to serve students in four counties.
“Having said that, this is not just our counties, this is happening nationwide,” she said. “The good news locally is that in Michigan, this position I have, it’s the only one in the country. We are one of the best McKinney-Vento programs in the state.”
Going forward, Fleming and Legg said they hope that more resources can become available for homeless students in need.
“What we are finding with our kids, especially those who are unaccompanied and independent, it’s not so much that they are having trouble finding food or personal hygiene products, it’s really that they just need a stipend to help them live,” Fleming said. “How can they finish their diploma for high school, but also have to pay rent for a room or pay for car insurance, which is astronomical for anyone under 25, while working a part-time, minimum-wage job? Even if they are doing virtual school to create a little more time to work, the budget for those children, on average, is short about $250 per month.
“So they really are just stuck,” she continued. “They aren’t asking us for clothes or other typical things. They just want to be successful, but they are doing that while living paycheck to paycheck.”